Four Shorts about Feet
by Louisa Wolf
On Household Noises and Memory
That wind howling, suddenly quiet. Its absence emphatic, like the pause between dishwasher cycles, or when water retracts as the shower shuts off. A flat, bland silence.
The shower, an idea incubator. A wet, walled space where water drowns out extraneous thought. Only the best keep afloat. The others swirl down the drain, with suds and stray pubic hair, shaving cream and toothpaste.
When was it, yesterday? Standing, stork-like, shaving my shins, that I saw a deep red line, an impression across my foot, as if my shoes had been too tight. Another line pressing across the other foot.
Where had I seen that before? Peeling back the binding from water skis, forty years ago.
But only after I had my pleasure: leaning back, away from a speedboat, lifting the thick white tow rope, bending my knees and crossing the wake: first right, then left. Passing reeds and lilied coves. Glancing at the small piney islands in the center of the lake. Tamping down fear.
Was I the only one gripped by terror even as I thrilled at my strange triumph—racing across a surface that I couldn’t walk upon? The only one who suspected that slimy freshwater tentacles were itching to seize me if I fell?
For twenty minutes I’d vacillate between ecstasy and fear, until finally the small white boat dock would come back in view. I’d toss the rope far to my left and coast in on my polished wooden Cypress Gardens. Then slowly sink, peel back the bindings, and shove the skis toward the next lucky skier. The skis sailed ahead alone, like tiny brave canoes.
I’d scull to the dock and huddle under a towel too thin to dry me and too small to warm me. Shiver and watch the next girl-magician play tricks with physics while I kicked at the water with my feet—their tops branded with deep red marks from the white rubber bindings.
But no, I’d seen those deep red fissures ten years ago, too. On my husband’s feet, not mine. When his kidneys failed and his flesh bloated with unfiltered fluids. For years, he’d sit at the end of the bed and push first one, then the other, shoe off by pressing his toe against the opposite heel. Until he couldn’t. Until casual pressure didn’t budge the shoe.
That’s when I’d take a shoe in my hands. Like a jockey’s attendant pulling at a custom-fitted boot. I’d lean back and pull, and he’d lean back and grunt, and gradually the shoe would give way.
His foot: a slab of white flesh, like a sad, dead fish with a terrible red gash carved across it. An image that fills me with revulsion just as the memory of skiing fills me with longing.
But now the wind rumbles back. There is snow and there is rare snow-thunder. Noise, like water, to wash away thought. To relieve me of memories—those that please and those that torture and those, like most, that do both.
Right now, he has a small volcano on his foot, does my husband. Okay, not so little. But it’s cone-shaped and discolored and glows molten on top. Molten is red, which is better than green, because green stank clear cross the room when he took off his sock.
It isn’t a break, it sits over a break. It’s number thirteen or fourteen; I’ve lost count.
This is how he broke his foot. Walking. And the other times: walking. Across the carpet, up the stairs, down the stairs. There’s no story to tell, when your bones are Rice Krispies.
But me, when I broke my foot, it was an oddly graceful moment. Sleeping, under the influence of Ambien. I was always under the influence of something then. Perhaps I was easily influenced. Wine at bedtime, wine at dinner, Lexapro anytime. Under the influence of fear, of anxiety, of my daughter’s adolescence, of terror, of tears. Of car wrecks and arrests, overdoses, failure notices, plagiarism accusations.
November, 2007, a 2 a.m. phone call rang in my chemical dream. My daughter’s laugh, could I unlock the door? My body rose from bed and slipped on a robe. Did I leave my soul on the mattress? I floated downstairs in a drowsy bubble, clutching my robe closed. I was Glinda, the good witch, floating into Oz. I didn’t believe in banisters. And in my Ambien trance, missed the last step and flew through the air, landing hard on the stairs, wood cracking bone.
I cursed and wailed and curled in a ball. Did my husband wake and open the door? Do I remember this right—my girl stepping over me as I writhed on the floor?
I crawled upstairs dizzy, nauseated, and struggled to bed. How long was it? My husband impatient with my histrionics. Did he bring Advil or ice? I propped my foot on a pillow. Shoved it inside a short lace-up boot the next morning. I walked tenderly at work. I winced as I limped and it made a good story.
You don’t want the details, how he doubted my pain, said it wasn’t broken. How my staff frowned at the bruises and said, see a doctor. About waking after surgery with hardware in my foot, peeing into a bed pan and not caring that I had to. About hopping in a walker along icy streets and sidewalks.
Instead, here’s an image: We are young and we are walking or hiking up a hillside. He marches like a soldier and I lag by three long paces. It’s as if I were his servant and am hustling to catch him.
And here’s another: We aren’t young and he is hobbling. One foot’s broken, one’s volcanic. He ambles side to side like an old arthritic cowboy. I make myself walk slower. I carry groceries, shovel sidewalks. I walk the dog, lift the luggage. I am hustling hard to manage. It’s as if I am his servant.
Fleet of Foot
As for my daughter, in high school her feet were her fortune. The solid left foot on the soccer pitch, a goalie’s dug-in heels, a trapper’s balance, fleet as a striker. In one photo, she challenges men for the ball; in another she trips one at midfield.
She was proud of her red cards and yellows.
When she failed physics, she raced along the sideline and ran through defenders, defying gravity and all petty principles.
Angry girl, unforgiving captain, she made flagging fielders weep. She’d run up the sled hill, speed past her teammates, and puke at the top. The purge, proof of her efforts. Pain, just part of the game.
Sturdy feet. They were hardly beauties—not like the girl they carried. After games, stripped of shin guards and cleats, they were olfactory hazards. In Adidas sandals her size 6 dogs threw off fumes enough to foul a gym.
Tannish, unwashed, serrated toenails with half-moons of grime. Never broken, but tattooed with scratches and scars from barefoot habits. The bottoms leathery, as if she were a hobbit.
Those were years we’d tug our war of curfew. 2 or 2:15, extra minutes meant everything. Or she spent the night elsewhere rather than race the clock.
So when she stumbled in one morning and slept on the green den couch, nothing seemed awry. When would I learn? Nothing ever seemed anything when everything was awry.
She woke and stretched; she asked me for a smoothie. I arrayed the ingredients on the counter: yogurt, banana, frozen berries. She pushed aside her blanket, lowered her feet to the floor. Her toes, then one heel. When the second heel hit, I heard her scream.
What is it, I asked—a twisted ankle? A tendon?
But no, it was a piece of glass lodged deep in her weathered foot. She smiled contritely at me, the witness. She had drunk so much or smoked so much or eaten so many brownies, that the sting in her heel as she roamed barefoot at the party—well, she’d hardly noticed.
I noticed. Like the stolen rings, the empty beer cans in the trunk, the messages from high school deans. The wads of weed, the cell phone bills, the empty lighters, the crumpled homework assignments. I noticed so much that I hardly felt it, the sting in my chest as I looked away. My heart, a leathery pouch as wrinkled as a hobbit’s purse, hiding hope, and maybe a dagger.
My feet were lucky enough. No breaks for the first half-century. No crushed nails. A horse stepped on one, but Darvon cured that pain.
They were not pristine. Not trapped in shoes, nor jailed in leather bindings, nor strangers to grass.
I remember the feel of my parents’ shag carpet, a lurid gold with long twisted fibers I could grab with my toes. The speckled yellow kitchen linoleum strewn with cereal crumbs and dog hair, sticky underfoot. A salami dangled from the kitchen doorknob to the yard—it was years before we saw the dog had licked it. A leash lolled on the counter and a silver box was parked outside the screen. We’d lift its lid, and leave the milkman his empties.
The gallon bottles were glass and heavy, even when empty. They were smooth and curvaceous, voluptuous decanters.
Each glass bottle wore a silver foil bonnet, as if it were an Amish princess. Inside the throat sat a small cardboard disc. A cut-out thumb latch bent up from the center. A firm tug at the latch lifted it out.
The milkman was stout and happy in his butcher-white jacket. He brought two gallons of regular and one-half of skim. One June dusk, he rapped on the door. The dogs leapt at their leashes and I padded cross the floor. The metal screen groaned open and he passed me the cool white bottle, sweating in the summer heat. I strode across the kitchen in bare teenage feet. I opened the fridge, and with the door propped wide, just inches short of the shelf, I let the bottle slide. Glass, milk, cap, all smashing to the floor. White liquid splashing, glass shards crashing: into food, onto shelves, into me.
My left foot: white, then wet, then spouting dark red. The milkman sprang to action and sat me in a chair. He pulled the glass from my throbbing geyser, as easy as lifting a cardboard latch. He pressed my cut together and bandaged it up.
Three days later, I was skiing. It took five tries, that first summer, to trust the rope’s tug, to point my toes together, to drag against the surface and dance inside the wake. My ankles were weak, and me, hesitant.
But then, up, up up. The white rubber bindings chafed the bandage. I circled the lake once, drifted down to a stop, and pulled off the skis. My blood stained the water.
I still have that scar. Another diary entry written into my skin. This one a puckered beige reminder of bare feet and glass bottles, the yellow linoleum kitchen, and my dogs, long dead, yapping while the milkman knocks at our door.
Louisa Wolf’s short work has appeared in many literary journals and across the Web. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. (5/2011)